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Vicarious Existence

To blog about what is going on in the MMO genre from a casual MMO player's viewpoint.

Author: UnSub

The WoW Equation For Success (And Why No Upcoming MMO Will Match It)

Posted by UnSub Wednesday November 28 2007 at 1:37AM
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World of Warcraft has become the dominant paradigm within Western MMO design, for some very obvious reasons. WoW has come to define pretty much everything else in the market. It's become the common touchpoint (again, for very obvious reasons i.e. it's popularity). A shorthand description for any MMO coming out has become "WoW with ________" or "WoW without ________" or even "the WoW-killer".

Of course, that's a gross simplification. But I've seen a lot of people apparently think that only one or two things were responsible for WoW's success and that if their upcoming MMO-of-choice "does <insert system here> right" then it's a shoe-in to beat WoW. I don't see it that way - I see a whole host of factors went into making WoW the market giant that it has become (and remains, at least in the short term). In my opinion, WoW has a success equation that will probably never be met, simply because they aligned so perfectly for WoW that whatever replaces WoW as market leader will have to do so in a way that few see coming.

As a bit of disclosure - I don't actually find WoW that thrilling a game, but respect what it's done for the MMO genre.

The success equation, as I see it:

Time to polish + large development budget + refinement of existing genre conventions + low barriers to entry + established online competitive computer game IP + gameplay that connects to the IP + the Blizzard brand + lots of reasons to keep playing + popularity + good word-of-mouth from beta + luck = WoW's success.

To break it down:

Time to polish: Blizzard made a point of polishing the in-game systems at every opportunity (or at least they've said they did). It wasn't left to the last month to feverishly try to pull things up to scratch - it was a priority from day one. And it shows. I won't pretend WoW is bug-free or perfect, but it tends to outperform its peers in this area.

Large development budget: My understanding is that the cost to launch WoW in North America and South Korea was in the US $65m range. This includes all development costs, server farms, network operations and all customer service infrastructure. In an industry where most MMOs appear to have budgets of between US $15m and US $30m (and may outsource servers, CS et al to a publisher who only wishes to have another MMO as a 'client' and cares very little about how the end player feels about their experience) WoW spent more than double its existing competitors.

Refinement of existing genre conventions: Lots of people say that WoW just took what EQ did and made it better. Although a bit of a cheap shot, it does have a grain of truth to it - WoW devs looked closely at what came before, polished up what worked and threw out what didn't. Combat was sped up. Advancing your character was sped up. Huge death penalties were thrown away. And so on. WoW's innovation was not in designing hundreds of radical new features, but improving the ones the genre had. They chose evolution over revolution.

Low barriers to entry: this has two different aspects - 1) a high end computer wasn't necessary to play WoW, and 2) you could level up quickly and by playing solo. No getting shut out of playing if you didn't meet the system specs (rare in a genre where system creep is a real issue) and no getting shut out by not being able to advance without a group behind you.

Established online competitive computer game IP: The Warcraft series was a well known franchise among gamers, especially those who played online games competitively. As such, it was very easy for players to be aware that the Warcraft MMO was coming and to anticipate playing it. Lots of players had fun in Warcraft games, so they could also reasonably expect to have fun in a Warcraft MMO even if they'd never played a MMO before. Competitive online players, very familiar with Warcraft and Starcraft, looked forward to competiting in a new space within Blizzard's new game. MMO players, who sometimes appear to care less about the IP than they do the MMO part, could be interested that a well-financed, big name MMO was coming out.

"Ahh," you may be thinking, "but don't other games have good, recognisable IPs only to flop after launch?". Yes, which is where the next factor comes in to play.

Gameplay that connects to the IP: Playing WoW fit in with how you'd expect to take part in the Warcraft universe. Warcraft is all about one side battling another - Humans Vs Orcs, and so on. WoW continued this aspect pretty seamlessly - you picked a side and your character fought for that side while increasing in power. Also, while the Warcraft IP did have major characters in it, they were more like representatives of a side, while the player was left to be the 'hero' of the game. WoW continues this to some degree, although (as with all MMOs) being the hero in a world full of 8 million others can stretch the credibility of this somewhat.

Looking at other major IPs, such as The Matrix Online or Star Wars Galaxies, it is clear that the gameplay often didn't connect well with the IP. In The Matrix films, you see the established heroes of Neo and Morpheus taking on Agents and winning - this was suicide for most players to try in MxO. So immediately the player feels reduced in scope and disconnected from what their character 'should' be able to do. Thinking about Star Wars, the films are space operas of lightsaber fights, aerial dogfights and blaster battles. SWG had no player Jedis on launch, no space combat on launch and turned players into canteen dancers or hairdressers - hardly the stuff of space opera. In both these cases, the games had the stylings of the IP, but not the heart of it. WoW launched with the heart of the gameplay linking strongly to the IP.

The Blizzard brand: Let's face it - the Blizzard brand helped WoW quite a bit. Blizzard is associated with high quality games that are fun to play. If Blizzard created WoW, then it follows that it must also be a high quality game that is fun to play; the mantra that "Blizzard doesn't release bad games" is one that is repeatedly echoed over the internet in gaming circles.

Lots of reasons to keep playing: WoW gives the player a relatively easy route to max level, but then offers them a lot of things to do to keep them playing. They can get better loot, do raids, PvP in a number of areas, roll up an alternate character, skill up, buy an epic mount... Blizzard realised (at least at launch) that not everyone wants to acheive the same things and provided a number of options that players could get into. That people were still apparently having fun having reached max level no doubt helped keep players involved.

Popularity: This worked as a snowball effect - players were interested in WoW, told their friends about it, those players got interested in WoW, got them interested in it, etc, etc. WoW hit a critical mass where hordes of players joined because all their friends were playing it.

The worldwide launch also comes into play here - being able to say you've got 8 million players (even if half are in China) makes the game sound like it must be good in order to get that kind of attention.

Good word-of-mouth from beta: Although there were some grumblings from beta about certain things, few MMOs seemed to have the overwhelmingly positive word of mouth coming out of beta that WoW did. Given the strength and importance of word of mouth, I'd suggest that players were swayed by hearing so many good reports about WoW that interest built where it wouldn't have before.

Luck: Yes, WoW got lucky. A large number of factors lined up perfectly to exceed any predicted subscription numbers for WoW. It came along at just the right time and offered just the right mixture to attract a lot of new players into the MMO genre. That said, it also did a lot to make its own luck and grab hold of the opportunity that Blizzard faced.

I don't believe that any upcoming MMO will be able to match WoW's success by duplicating one or two of its systems, or 'fixing' some sort of perceived deficiency. Copying WoW is only going to see players leave any new game since they'd already experienced WoW before. If you believe in the Anna Karenina effect, WoW's success was unique to the combination of factors behind it. Simply duplicating one or two factors - say, the budget and good word or mouth from beta - isn't going to drive player numbers up to the same level because other critical factors are missing.

So what can unseat WoW at the top of the heap? I can only see three things that could - 1) WoW devs shooting themselves in the foot through unpopular choices that see players driven away, 2) lots of niche games splinter the WoW playerbase to numerous other targets so that no one MMO is "the WoW-killer", or 3) some new MMO comes along that succeeds completely on its own terms.

But in any case, trying to out-WoW WoW is a strategy that will never work.

NCsoft Buying CoH/V: Killing Memes Softly

Posted by UnSub Thursday November 22 2007 at 8:47PM
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I've already written a long piece on the CoH/V forums about how NCsoft buying City of Heroes / Villains' IP is a win for NCsoft, a win for Cryptic and a win for CoH/V players, so I'm not going to recover that ground (well, not much). But I've been going around and reading various forum reactions and reports regarding the purchase and keep seeing a lot of stuff that basically irks me. Various rumours or statements are starting up that have little basis in any kind of reality and should be nailed down before they become memes that can never be shaken (e.g. the 5th Column were taken out of CoH because they were launching the game in Germany!). The rumours of the MUO being cancelled have also fuelled speculation - a lot of which seems to be incorrect.

As always, these are just my personal opinions and I have no insider knowledge.

 

"Cryptic knew that MUO was going to be cancelled, so they sold CoH/V!"

Unlikely. Positron indicated that the deal for NCsoft to buy CoH/V has been on the table for about six months. It would seem that any issues with MUO have come up more recently than that, so while it may have been a factor, it probably wouldn't have been the deciding one.  

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Cryptic have at least one more secret project that they were internally funding. While the revenue from CoH/V's monthly subs would have been reasonable, it would have been split with NCsoft (since they are the publisher) which may have limited how much Cryptic could do in developing their own MMO. Selling off CoH/V gives Cryptic a large chunk of change to get their secret MMO finalised and out the door. That's probably a greater incentive to sell CoH/V to an attractive and friendly offer than whatever is going on with MUO.

 

"NCsoft buying CoH/V off Cryptic was inevitable!"

No, it wasn't. If it was so inevitable, there would have been heaps of commentary beforehand that NCsoft was going to buy CoH/V fully among various MMO forums, right? I'm not going to pretend that I read every comment about CoH/V on the internet, but I read in a number of places and I can never remember anyone saying anything about such a sale as even a possibility. Especially in the way it happened i.e. the whole CoH/V dev team jumping ship to a new studio.

NCsoft buying the CoH/V IP is something that, in retrospect, seems obvious, which is why a lot of people seem to be Monday morning quarterbacking and saying how "inevitable" it was. But that doesn't mean it was the only way things could have happened, or that many people actually saw it coming. Any MMO publisher could have bought CoH/V off Cryptic / NCsoft. The situation could have remained as it was, with NCsoft publishing CoH/V and Microsoft publishing MUO while Cryptic develops both. And so on. I was surprised by the news of the sale, but it made sense. I'm not about to pretend I saw it coming.

 

"Cryptic having both CoH/V and MUO was a conflict of interest!"

Sure, but only if Turbine having D&D Online and LOTRO is a conflict of interest, or if SOE having EQ and EQ2 is a conflict of interest, or if EA Mythic has a conflict of interest in having DAoC and developing WAR, or if any other MMO company that more than one MMO out in any area is a conflict of interest. A superficial reading - that both CoH/V and MUO are superhero MMOs and would compete - may throw up a red flag until you consider that each game aims for different target markets. CoH/V is PC-only and is slanted towards casual MMO players; MUO is PC (Vista OS) and Xbox 360 and will be slanted towards the mass market. There will be some overlap, sure, but the winner at the end of the day in that situation is Cryptic because they get more players from their different games in different markets than they do from having only one game in one market space. 

Internally, I'm sure it was a struggle at Cryptic to keep things separate if only because a lot of the senior people were working together for a long time. Nothing shatters a work relationship like, "I can't tell you what I'm working on and you can't tell me what you are working on". But that's the way chinese walls work in business, where much larger companies than Cryptic conduct projects for competing companies in a similar space. It's likely that NCsoft and Microsoft both wanted the focus to be on their product solely, but the other thing is that Microsoft came in long after NCsoft was there and knew the score. Marvel / Microsoft obviously didn't see a conflict of interest in Cryptic developing MUO alongside CoH/V or else they wouldn't have given Cryptic the project.  

 

"Cryptic dumped CoH/V because they know CoH/V is DOOOMed in the face of MUO!"

Wrong, because not only did Cryptic sell the CoH/V IP, but the entire CoH/V dev team decided to move to a fully funded new studio courtesy of NCsoft. The initial posts of the CoH/V devs sounds very optimistic as well. So either Cryptic is heartless enough to sacrifice 30 to 40 people (some of whom have been around Cryptic since it pretty much launched) to a game they know will they will crush (or conversely the CoH/V devs are stupid enough to sign on to a doomed MMO) or they are selling CoH/V because they are getting a good deal from NCsoft that also looks good to the CoH/V dev team. 

I'd fully agree with the DOOOOOM sentiment if only a few devs had moved across. If, say,  Positron (Matt Miller) had stayed behind, there would be questions worth asking. But, to the best of my knowledge, every single CoH/V dev elected to join on to NCsoft NorCal. I bet all of these people want to stay employed, so they wouldn't be making the move if they didn't see a future in the "City of..." franchise. Given Cryptic's current non-CoH/V projects, I'm sure the people who wanted to stay could have been slotted in somewhere else if they wanted to stay. Since the money from the sale seems earmarked for Cryptic's non-MUO projects then I'm sure that internal resources are still required.

The flipside - that the CoH/V devs are abandoning Cryptic because MUO is going to sink it - also doesn't hold up much to scrutiny. If MUO does get cancelled, the most likely outcome is that Microsoft / Marvel gets to keep the work they paid for and Cryptic keeps its toolsets and the experience from developing the project to that point. Without seeing the contract, I'll never know, but it's unlikely that Cryptic would sign a contract where they could be penalised if Microsoft pulled the plug on MUO. The worst that would happen (assuming no contractual shenanigans) would be that Cryptic would be without a major IP for their next MMO title and free to develop what they wanted for their next title. Also, if things were that bad, I would have suspected more than just the CoH/V team (plus one) would have made the jump to the now-recruiting NCsoft NorCal.

The way I read between the lines on the PR releases, NCsoft made a very good offer to Cryptic for CoH/V and a very good offer to the CoH/V devs. NCsoft wants CoH/V to grow. They are throwing resources at CoH/V that it may never have seen the like of, with the offer to double or even triple the development staff. Cryptic can't offer the same resources - they are stretched between CoH/V, MUO and their sekret projekt(s). Selling CoH/V sees Cryptic get a lot of money and the ability to narrow their focus (which, on a side note, has to make Microsoft / Marvel very, very happy). Moving to NCsoft NorCal gives the CoH/V team the chance to take the game where they've always wanted. Win / win.

Cryptic may be heartless, but I don't see any evidence of it. For instance, NCsoft gets to license Cryptic's engine technologies for future games and keep CoH/V using it. If Cryptic wanted to be mean about it, they could have kneecapped the development of CoH/V for the next six months by refusing that license and forcing the CoH/V team to develop such things from scratch. That they didn't says volumes about the nature of the transaction between Cryptic and NCsoft.

 

"Any MMO that gets bought out is DOOOOMed!"

I admit that history hasn't been too good here for MMOs that get bought out after publication. SOE buys out a MMO and then puts it out to Station Pass pasture for a long, slow death. EA buys a MMO studio to cancel its output. But NCsoft is a bit of a different creature and has even given complete turkeys of MMOs (hello, Auto Assault!) plenty of time to try to come good.

The big exception to the "buy out" rule is EVE Online. What is little remembered is that Simon & Schuster Interactive originally published EVE and came pretty close to cancelling it. CCP managed to convince SSI to sell the rights to them and create a very successful MMO (also the MMO most likely to cause a real-life war between players) as a result. NCsoft NorCal is about as close it it gets to CoH/V buying itself from Cryptic, so they've got a better chance of making it work than any SOE Station Pass-filler or EA sacrificial lamb.

 

"With Statesman (Jack Emmert) gone, CoH/V can roll-back ED and GDN!"

Lots of wishful thinking here. There are some players who believe CoH at launch, with some characters capable of herding every map by themselves at no risk and where dumpster diving (i.e. jumping into a dumpster to force those herded enemies to fight you a few at a time) was a valid tactic, was the best of times. These people are deluded and / or never played any sub-optimal AT powerset combination. Even today, CoH/V is hardly a perfectly balanced game, but the changes made since launch have made the game a lot better and evened the power differential out. ED and GDN (which I won't go into in detail, but Enhancement Diversification and Global Defence Nerf were nerfs that could dramatically alter how a character in CoH/V could function) are in the game to stay.

NCsoft NorCal (who I'll now call 'NC^2' since I'm sick of typing out the long name) may roll back some small things or make some cosmetic changes, but I can't see them electing to roll back changes that have been in the game longer than they haven't. Unless players are willing to sit back and accept something like six months of rebalancing of old content (with no new content added, because they'd have to rebalance that too) in order to have ED / GDN removed - which they aren't - then the people expecting such a change are only going to be disappointed.

Also, what is often forgotten is that Positron was right there behind Statesman when ED / GDN was introduced. Statesman didn't develop, program and implement the changes all by himself.

There - that's six  things that hopefully never come up again (or, when they inevitably do, I have a cut'n'paste for them).

Comic-ly Tragic: Female Developers vs Male [strike]Gamers[/strike] Gaming Journalists

Posted by UnSub Monday November 19 2007 at 10:07PM
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A big story that sprang from small beginnings were the events surrounding a pornographic comic featuring Assassin's Creed producer Jade Redmond. It's a story that shows that there are still a huge number of barriers facing female developers in what is a male dominated industry and player base.

The first problem is that David Cheung created a comic featuring Jade Raymond doing some fairly compromising acts and degrading her to the status of bimbo-only-for-male-gratification. Such a reduction of ability to Ms Raymond is hardly fair, given that she appears to have an solid game development resume - The Sims Online, There and working for SOE in R&D - and also presents very well. This actually goes further than just her appearance - she is eloquent and can speak in front of crowds. Her role as a producer on Assassin's Creed has seen her do this several times, while she's also done a lot of interviews with gaming "journalists".

The second problem was Ubisoft sending a cease and desist letter to SomethingAwful.com (who thrive on this kind of thing) when someone posted the comic there. Legal threats to SA are like mana from heaven, especially when they come from geek sources like Ubisoft. Given that 1) the lawyers hit the wrong target in SA and not David Cheung and 2) they probably don't have a legal leg to stand on regarding the comic since it could probably be successfully defended as a tasteless satire (and if that defense worked for 2 LIve Crew, it will probably work for anyone who wants to spend the money against Ubisoft to defend it). All in all it means that the comic has legs it never would have originally.

The third problem is that apparently a whole lot of people seem to think this kind of thing is okay, that Ms Raymond is an available target for this kind of thing because ... well, she's pretty and has been used in promoting a video game she was working on. From everything I've read that has been attributed to Ms Raymond, she's been nothing but professional and well-spoken. Her attention has been on Assassin's Creed. The male game journalist, however, has been all about putting up photos of Ms Raymond and pseudo-stalking her, thus fuelling the fire. That Ubisoft might use a producer on their game to promote it isn't out of line; that gaming commentators have slobbered all over pictures of her is.

All in all, it just creates a hostile series of barriers for women who may wish to work in game development. That, regardless of the work they do, they will be judged on their appearance. That they could be reduced to being a sexual object displayed for mockery.  That you can't be contributing anything of value to the game you are working on because gaming development is what men do. And so on. It just leads to women having to fight harder to get any kind of respect - a fight that is made doubly harder when a lot of those who deride you are anonymous.

All this just leads to gaming being stuck in its adolescent boy niche, being focused on boobs and explosions. Women who could take up game development as a career may think of what happened to Jade Raymond and decide to go elsewhere because they don't want to have to deal with the boy's club that is the games industry. When this happens, it is gaming that misses out.

EDIT - On November 23, I changed the title to better reflect my opinion on this matter. It was the gaming journalists / commentators who really drove this matter so they deserve a lion's share of the blame.

A Canned History of the Marvel MMO Given It May Be Dead Again

Posted by UnSub Tuesday November 13 2007 at 10:55PM
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As reported in a story by 1up, it has been rumoured that Marvel Universe Online, developed by Cryptic and published by Microsoft, might have been cancelled. Which would make it the third time this IP has jumped from the world of the living to the world of the dead (which, to be honest, is pretty common in the world of comic book heroes at Marvel, but a lousy attribute to have in a MMO IP).

To recap, the long, sad history of the Marvel MMO:

Things kick off in September 2002, when Vivendi and Marvel announce a 10 year deal to do something MMO-related with the Marvel comic universe. Why Vivendi? At the time WoW was a distant thing that was still under development and still to cost more than any other MMO developed. Vivendi was still to face a number of financial challenges (things started to turn bad in 2002) but was a very ambitious company. For Vivendi Games to get the Marvel license would have been a big deal. On the other side Marvel got to deal with a media company who also made games - something they would have been comfortable with from previous experiences - rather than a pure games company.

Then things go quiet. My assumption here is that having got the license, Vivendi did some things with it, but no major announcements were ever made on a Marvel MMO. My guess is that Blizzard's very costly World of Warcraft (announced a year before the Marvel deal) became the focus rather than a title that hadn't yet been started.

We hit July 2005 and suddenly it is announced that Marvel Enterprises and Microsoft Game Studios have signed a deal for an Xbox 360 MMO release, scheduled 2008. Guess that 10 years isn't what it used to be (or there was a clause that let Marvel get out of a deal due to certain milestones not being met, or something). Unfortunately for Marvel, certain contracts they have with THQ and Vivendi that would stop them using all of their characters, but with more than 5 000 to choose from, few fans would have been disappointed. In an interesting twist, Sony had signed on with DC to create a DC MMO likely as a consolation prize for also taking on The Matrix Online just a month before, setting up an interesting Marvel / Microsoft vs DC / Sony tag team battle.

In December 2005 it gets announced that Sigil was going to be the development studio being Microsoft's Marvel MMO. Stop laughing. It really happened. Brad McQuaid's presence on the Marvel MMO raised some eyebrows, but in an interesting turn of events (which I can't prove because I don't have screenshots of these things but simply observed in my searches at the time) Sigil never, ever mentioned the Marvel MMO on their site. Maybe it popped up in a press release, but there was never any page devoted to the Marvel MMO. Sigil was all about Vangard: Saga of Heroes.

Come May 2006, where Microsoft sells off its Vanguard: Saga of Heroes publishing rights to Sony Online Entertainment. Given that Microsoft Games Studios were reportedly unhappy enough with Vangard that they handballed it to SOE, it was pretty unlikely they were going to leave the Marvel MMO with Sigil.

Which they didn't - in September 2006, Cryptic Studios gets the tap from Microsoft to develop the Marvel MMO which is publicly called Marvel Universe Online. Cryptic, known for its own superhero MMO in City of Heroes / City of Villains, was both a natural and a surprising choice - natural, because they'd had the experience; surprising because they would conceptually be creating a competitor to their own product and because Marvel had sued Cryptic in 2005 at least in part because players could create characters that may have infringed on Marvel's comic character IPs. Marvel and Cryptic had settled on that suit, but no-one expected them to be working together. MUO was announced as an Xbox 360 and PC Vista OS MMO. In the following months, some comments were made by Cryptic's Creative Designer Jack Emmert regarding the MUO project, but things were kept very secretive.

Which brings us to today, where the project may have been cancelled. Again. A note to any future MMO developers - if someone approaches you, gleam in their eye, and asks if you'd like to work on a Marvel Comics MMO, RUN LIKE HELL.

Fury-ously High Barriers to Entry

Posted by UnSub Monday November 12 2007 at 2:04AM
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I'm a little late with this, but quite frankly the launch of Fury didn't excite me much.

I wish to god that it had. An Australian-developed MMO? Lots of prizes on offer? A fast-paced fighting game with lots of power options? It sounded great on paper.

In practise, however, it wasn't that great. I alpha- and beta-tested this MMO, off and on, for several months. Although Auran did improve a number of issues, they never fixed the biggest one: Fury was a ridiculously complex game to start off in. The barriers to entry to learn - to get past the button mashing and actually learn how to compete with some cohesion - were just too high.

If you were to compare Fury to the slightly-unfair gold standard of fighting games (unfair because the two games are obviously different animals, but both share the same core - fighting) that is Street Fighter II, you can see where the flaw lies. In SFII, you have six standard attacks and a few special ones. Although it can take an age to learn the combos and get the timing right, anyone can work out what hitting heavy punch will do. SFII is easy to enter but harder to master.

Fury, on the other hand, has a huge number of powers, none of where were that easy to understand in how they worked even if you hit a target with them. All the different schools of attack, then all those different options per school, then the fact that you can learn any power (which is a great feature in my opinion but it does add to the complexity) on top of some mana classes working in different directions... I got confused very quickly, especially in situations where I'd run into combat and it was *whack* *whack* *whack* I'm dead, I respawn, oh look the other team has won the map. My Fury experience was rapidly hitting the buttons and hoping I did something that worked before I died.

Fury saw me suffer from choice paralysis and run into combat as easy meat. The barrier to entry was too high for me to learn what I needed to do and achieve the early 'feel-good' experience that would have kept me interested. There's a game coming out that occupies the same space as Fury but is a lot simpler and more fun to get into - I'll get into that on Wednesday when the NDA drops.

Win-Win-Win: The 'Why' of NCsoft buying the CoH/V IP

Posted by UnSub Tuesday November 6 2007 at 8:01PM
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It's been announced that NCsoft has just bought the IP rights to CoH/V and is moving the CoH/V dev team (who willingly signed on according to all information available at this point in time) into a new studio called NCsoft Northcal.

The below are all my own thoughts on this issue - I have no inside source or special knowledge.

Having thought about the news that NCsoft has bought the CoH/V IP and basically set up a new dev studio straight out of Cryptic's nest, the one question that I don't think anyone has really considered is "Why?".

This wasn't a case of Cryptic wanting to sell CoH/V - it's their game and one they have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into. It's also a good revenue source that has seen player numbers increase over the past year. NCsoft must have wanted to buy CoH/V. The only way I can see this happening is that NCsoft put the offer on the table - to buy the IP and to offer anyone interested in joining a new studio a position - and let Cryptic think about it. The offer must have been very attractive, because Cryptic agreed to sell the CoH/V IP and all of the CoH/V devs signed on to join NCsoft Norcal. (If the devs hadn't signed on, would they still have had employment at Cryptic? I don't know - Cryptic is still advertising some positions on its site - but it's very interested to me that all agreed to stay with CoH/V.)

Marvel Universe Online (aka MUO, Cryptic's big other MMO-in-development) is not the full 'why', either. It might be part of it and it may have been a strong reason for NCsoft to make the pitch, but it actually isn't a conflict of interest for Cryptic to develop CoH/V and MUO in the same building. I haven't read anyone going "OMG Turbine is developing and D&D Online and LOTRO - there's a conflict!". Game studios can work on games in the same genre but targetted to different markets without any conflict of interest arising.

The real 'why' (IMO) is that NCsoft, Cryptic and CoH/V were heading in different directions. Cryptic wants to take on more roles that move them closer to being a publisher - they want their own CMs, their own servers, their own billing systems (likely still 3rd party applications, but under their control). If you've been following the kind of jobs they've been hiring for, you'll have seen this. They also have more than just MUO under development. CoH/V has become one project of many and, if it requires the Jack Emmert, Creative Director of Cryptic aka Statesman to sign off on any major decisions (which it probably does) then delays in CoH/V related decisions are inevitable.

Despite launching several subscription games developed in North America, NCsoft's greatest paid subscription hit has arguably been CoH/V. Auto Assault? Dead. Tabula Rasa? They jury is out. Dungeon Runners and Exteel? Not going to be market drivers. NCsoft want to see CoH/V continue - nay, flourish - on the back of its continued critical acclaim. To meet that target, it needs resources. Currently, Cryptic is splitting its resources several different ways, so while CoH/V may be the revenue earner, it isn't getting 100% of that revenue reinvested in it.

By buying CoH/V, NCsoft gets the ability to fully dictate the level of resources the game will get (and since the entire dev team came along, I have to think the resources on offer must look pretty attractive) while Cryptic gets a huge wad of cash to develop their secret projects (since MUO would be funded by Microsoft / Marvel). The CoH/V team would appear to get a flatter level of management - current Lead Developer Matt Miller aka Positron would seem to get the final call on gaming development decisions. At the same time, the CoH/V team likely get a big wad of cash put in front of them - NCsoft isn't going to start up a new studio without giving it some substantial seed money. With Issue 11 almost out, Issue 12 probably planned out and other issues on the drawing board, the seed money can be used to resource the question, "Where do we want to take CoH/V moving forward?". In the past 12 months I've been impressed where Positron has taken CoH/V and I'm very interested to see where he could take the game when he's got the final call and a lot of money to do it.

At this point in time, I see this announcement as a win for all sides. Cryptic wins in that it gets a large cash in-flow for developing its other projects. NCsoft wins in that it gets greater access to developing CoH/V moving forward. The CoH/V team gets more money and resources to take CoH/V forward. Even assuming some hiccups on the way, it appears that, most of all, the fans of CoH/V and Cryptic will win - more development for CoH/V and Cryptic's projects without the loss of people important to each one.

At some later date, things may fall over, or new information may come out that changes the light in which I see the announcement. But right now, I can see only good things coming from this announcement.

Update: CoH/V's player numbers are out for Q3 2007 - they are at 139k active subscriptions, down from Q2's 153k but pretty close to Q1's 143k. The last few quarters have seen CoH/V's numbers swing up and down quite a bit, but the trend is for them to sit between 140k and 150k active subscribers.

On Being A Casual MMO Player, Part 1 of n

Posted by UnSub Sunday November 4 2007 at 7:49AM
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I'm a casual MMO player. Which is to say that, in a genre where game progression is 99% based on how long you can spend in-game, I'm never going to be able to cut it.

How casual am I? I can probably squeeze in 10 hours of computer recreation time per week at home. For MMOs, where playing them like a second job is seen as an acceptable gaming methodology, this means I'm a long way behind the curve.

I find that interesting, because a lot of verbal attention is given to casual players by MMOs, especially new MMOs. "Come on in casual players - you'll be able to do lots of things and it'll be fun!" they say. What this tends to mean is that casual players can fiddle around the edges and see bits and pieces, but if you really want to play and see the good stuff / get the good loot, you need to spend more resources - in most cases, this means time in-game.

However, the thing is that there are a lot more casual players out there than hardcore. The hardcore are more vocal and churn through the content faster, but they are a small percentage of the market. I don't have any stats for a game-by-game breakdown of casual players vs hardcore players in terms of proportion, but it's pretty straightforward that there are more players who kick around for a few hours a week as an escape in-game than those who dedicate 40+ hours to it.

Yet the MMO market tends to act like the hardcore market is the only one worth going after, that players who can't spend 4 hours a day min/maxing their character into a PvP demi-god aren't worth the time to develop anything meaningful for. Post launch, casual players really tend to get shafted as lots of development goes into an 'end-game' that requires a lot of time to get to and then a lot of time to play through.

It's a stupid model, and one that WoW (err... up until end-game, that is) and CoH/V have shown doesn't have to exist. You can let players play casually, let them advance quickly and still keep them paying up from month to month.

"But surely developing for the hardcore is a sensible idea?", you might ask. "They are the ones who are most loyal to their MMO, the ones who stay around the longest and the ones who know the game best, right?"

Not necessarily. More to come in a later entry...

Why Bioware Will Release KOTORO (or Hang For It)

Posted by UnSub Friday November 2 2007 at 10:34AM
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Okay, first post and on a topic I'm a little late on: the whole Bioware Knights of the Old Republic Online (KOTORO) rumour. The rumour got a little more solid after it was announced that Bioware and Lucasarts have a formal agreement to develop something. But still Bioware is playing the "are we or aren't we?" PR game with KOTORO.

The reason I think that KOTORO (or something like it) will be announced by Bioware is that it's a stupid thing for them to have feed the rumour they know they can't pay up on - and by issuing non-denial denials, they are feeding it. Although some people think that all hype is good hype, the second that Bioware announces that they aren't doing KOTORO but are doing another Lucasarts-orientated MMO (Loom Online, anyone?) then all of that interest will disappear, Bioware or not. People are excited about a Star Wars MMO that is without the taint of Galaxies and that it will be "done right" (which it won't be, but that's another story). Any other non-Star Wars Bioware game isn't going to cut it.

The only way Bioware gets the rumour to pay off is they are developing KOTORO (which sounds like a video game villain to me). Anything else will see players feel deceived by Bioware, which isn't going to help develop a community around their new MMO nor help players feel that Bioware still has their gaming interests at heart  having been bought by EA.